NEWSLETTER 489: SATURDAY 27 MAY 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Lord love a duck Adam Warren writes from France with an intriguing idea: “I think this may be an anglicised form of the Irish divinity ‘Lugh Lamhfada’, Lugh of the flaming lance, and guesswork suggests to me it may have been picked up in the trenches in the First World War and deformed in the mouths of the Tommies, many of whom were cockneys. I must have heard it last, many years ago, from the lips of my Scoutmaster, in the 1960s. He’d been a soldier in both wars.” Lugh Lamhfada is said like “loo lavfada”, not too dissimilar in sound, but we have to be wary of such seeming relationships. Bitter experience shows they're nearly always mere coincidences.
Opodeldoc Many subscribers remembered this preparation from their childhoods, showing that it—and its name—survived in daily use longer than the written record suggests. For example, Pat Mackay recollects, “After I walked into a lamppost at the age of about five, opodeldoc was applied to the huge lump on my forehead. The curious word has remained with me, though I haven’t heard of the stuff since. So it was still in use in Belfast in the late 1940s.” Christine Aikenhead recalls, “When I was a child my dad had a window-cleaning business in Yorkshire. He washed the windows with chamois leathers which had to be rinsed in a bucket of water many times in a day. The work was very hard on his hands. In the evenings, he used to rub a mixture of glycerine and opodeldoc on his hands. He swore by it.”
2. Turns of Phrase: Electromagnetic hypersensitivity
It’s a bit of a mouthful, but it describes a condition in which individuals claim to suffer ill-health as a result of exposure to electrical or magnetic radiation from kettles, television sets, computers, power lines, or mobile phone base stations. Symptoms include burning sensations, fatigue, tiredness, dizziness, nausea, heart palpitations, and digestive disturbances. The symptoms are often as non-specific as those with chronic fatigue syndrome.
Part of the problem?
The term has been around in a quiet way for some time (the first example I’ve found is in Robert O Becker’s Cross Currents of 1990), but it has had wide circulation in Britain in the past week or so as a result of many reports in popular newspapers. The condition is also known as electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome (EHS) and sufferers are called electromagnetic hypersensitives or described as being electrosensitive.
It is controversial, with no study finding a clear link between low-level electromagnetic radiation and symptoms. Researchers are sure that those complaining of symptoms are sincere, experiencing a real problem that can be disabling, but can find no evidence that suggests a connection with radiation.
We wanted to inform the Health Secretary about the debilitating symptoms experienced by electro-sensitive people. Patricia Hewitt was sympathetic whilst seemingly unaware of the electromagnetic hypersensitivity problem.
[Birmingham Mail, 12 Jan. 2006]
If there’s no real explanation, perhaps a “placebo” explanation—like “electromagnetic hypersensitivity”—can have almost all the same properties as a real one.
[Guardian, 13 May 2006]
3. Weird Words: Ensorcelled
It’s not too hard to guess this one, since its middle has echoes of sorcerer. That’s the origin, because it comes via the Old French verb ensorceler from sorcier, a sorcerer. Both go back to Latin sors, the destiny, fate or fortune of an individual.
Subtitled The Adventures of W Wilson Newbury, Ensorcelled Financier
Despite the ancient pedigree of the words from which it comes, the verb ensorcell appears in English only in the sixteenth century, and that briefly. It began to be popular in the nineteenth century, the classic examples being in the Arabian Nights stories translated by Sir Richard Burton, which included The Tale of the Ensorcelled Prince among those told by Scheherazade. “She came forward swaying from side to side and coquettishly moving and indeed she ravished wits and hearts and ensorcelled all eyes with her glances.”
It has become more common since, though it’s hardly a word you will expect to find in your daily newspaper. It’s usually regarded as literary or poetic but is most frequently to be found in sword-and-sorcery fantasy novels: “The lock was ensorcelled, protected as if by some invisible, unbreakable glass” (Lois McMaster Bujold, The Spirit Ring, 1992); “She was an ensorcelled princess, and only the evil witches might waken her” (Vernor Vinge, A Deepness in the Sky, 1999); “The colossal hammer of the Berserker Khorixas was forged of the same sky metal as Etjole Ehomba’s ensorcelled sword” (Alan Dean Foster, A Triumph of Souls, 2000).
4. Recently noted
Codology Philip French’s review of The Da Vinci Code film in the Observer last Sunday contained several neat put-downs, such as “Brown’s novel is called a ‘page-turner’, partly because no one capable of reading without moving their lips would wish to linger over his prose”, and “The cryptographers are constantly creeping into crypts, talking crap and copping out”. He described the Robert Langdon character as “professor of religious symbology (a branch of codology) at Harvard”. That sounds like simple exposition, unless you know that codology has nothing to do with code-breaking. It’s actually an Irish colloquial term that was explained by H V Morton in 1930 in this way: “There is in Ireland a science unknown to us in England called codology. Nearly every true Irishman is either a graduate or a professor. The American for codology is ‘bunk’, or perhaps ‘bla’; the English is ‘leg-pulling’. There is nothing your true Irishman likes better than putting over a tall story on an Englishman.” Americans may argue that the more recent kidology is a better fit. Codology derives from the slightly older slang term cod, meaning a joke, a hoax, a parody, or take-off. The Belfast Newsletter used it like this in November 2003: “Seems like politics is a chip off the old block for this candidate who assures us he will not engage in any codology on this campaign.”
Department of strained invention This week’s prize goes to Sophie Watson Smythe, the marketing manager of Q magazine. She needed a term to describe women who now have the freedom to broaden their musical horizons through downloading from the Net, so avoiding the snobbish, list-obsessed, condescending, mainly male assistants in record shops. This new breed of tech-savvy female music fans she dubbed the “MP-she generation”.
5. Questions & Answers: Two-car funeral
[Q] From Bill Decker: “What is the story behind the expression two-car funeral?”
[A] In US English, it usually turns up the fuller form, couldn’t organise a two-car funeral. It’s a measure of utter incompetence.
Here’s an example from the Fresno Bee of February 2004: “When is the school board going to face the reality that the administration is incapable of organizing a two-car funeral?” Sometimes the verb is manage, as here in an issue of the Cincinnati Post in January 2005: “If Bill Frist’s performance as Senate majority leader the last few weeks is any indication, he would have trouble managing a two-car funeral let alone the vast U.S. government.”
Like most such slangy expressions, trying to tie down its origins is next to impossible. It became well enough known that it began to appear in newspapers around 1971; the earliest example I’ve come across appeared in a syndicated article in several US newspapers in February 1971: “The Saigon government at that point could not organize a two-car funeral.”
The standard British equivalent, by the way, is the more forceful couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery.
• Elliot Kretzmer reports that The Debkafile website carried a story on 15 May 2006 of “four men who turned themselves into Egyptian police”. Quite an arresting development, he thinks.
• “The issue of Reader’s Digest for November 2005,” e-mailed Irene Heath, “contained the following statement: ‘In 2003, 203 people died when their vehicle collided with a tree.’ I don’t know what kind of vehicle can carry 203 people, but the collision can’t have done the tree much good.”
An intriguing read ...
• “Here is an extract,” e-mailed Malcolm Hutton, “from the May-June issue of Booklover, from Dymocks, the Australian booksellers. The interview was with a new writer, one book published, another in the offing: ‘I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I’ve got a whole lot of stuff I’ve written over the past 20 years in my wardrobe.’” Writers have it so easy these days; earlier generations had only a freezing garret to write in.
• George Thomas found another noteworthy comment in the same piece: “I wrote the first sentence exactly five years ago. I knew people in the book industry and I asked them to read it and got their feedback. From there, I re-wrote it and got a manuscript assessor to read it, too. I went down the road of trying to get an agent, but that was difficult. I then sent it to a publisher who accepted manuscripts. By the time Hodder got it, it was very polished and I think they could tell it was not a first draft.” That fastidiously crafted sentence is going to make a disconcertingly slim book.
• Remaining for the nonce in Australia, Michael Shannon found this headline on the news Web site for the National Nine Television Network: “Man shot dead in park wanted for murder”. “America,” he comments, “may have its mean streets but we’ve got killer parks.” And Gary Smith reports that he found an irresistible treat on a menu at a Greek restaurant in Adelaide: “fried codpieces”.
• Following up comments on the unintentionally humorous effect of missing letters, Robert Bass recalls: “Just before graduate school (during the Nixon administration), I was employed as a proofreader for a typesetting firm. I had worked there for many weeks before I noticed that the gold-lettered sign on its front door (and proudly displayed there for a decade) read ‘Typsetting’. It was with some reluctance that I mentioned the problem to the proprietor.”
• Pete Jones once caused a classic Sic: “Back in the Sixties I worked for the Press Association as a teleprinter operator. I sent out a piece which had the Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home, referring to “the high cost of loving”. The error was picked up by the columnist Cassandra [William Connor] in the Daily Mirror and then repeated in several other dailies.”